Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Review: Atlantis

Atlantis is a new BBC One drama set in the eponymous city. The story, such as it is, follows a young man called Jason who is allegedly a marine archaeologist or somesuch nonsense but runs a profitable side-line smuggling live pigeons inside his pectoral muscles. One day when out looking for his dead father, his submarine gets sucked into a wormhole and he washes up in the mythical city wearing nothing but a novelty necklace and a grimace reminiscent of a particularly unpleasant bowel movement, which he retains for the rest of the program. Whether running for his life, pulling an arrow from his ridiculous bicep, flirting with Ariadne or fondling a young, geeky Pythagoras, he is steadfast in his refusal to exhibit any emotion beyond a kind of pained surprise.

There are many, many, things wrong with this ‘drama’, but the first, and most prominent, is the complete and total inability of anyone involved to act. These days most of the really bad actors seem to have been siphoned off to present daytime quiz shows or into adverts or YouTube, but the BBC is doing its utmost to keep the absolute worst of them in business. Jack Donnelly is the aforementioned muscle-display unit, and I suspect that the intention is to serve him up to mother so that she might watch with the children, in the same way that Amy Pond was given to fathers willing to endure Matt Smith. The least-bad of the lot is Robert Emms as Pythagoras (why he’s there is utterly inexplicable), though that’s mainly due to his having such an amusing face that he doesn’t actually need to act.

It might be a bit unfair to blame the actors, though, because it’s quite possible that they’re actually incredible thespians who simply recognised the unbelievably poor quality of the script and decided to convey their disgust in their performance. While watching I tried to jot down some of the worst blunders, but I was hampered by not wanted to prolong my suffering and pause the video, so what follows is just an entrée to the seven-course banquet of bad writing:

  • ‘If the guards catch him they’ll execute him on sight!’ 
  • ‘Oh, Jason, only you can bring an end to the people’s fear and suffering.’ 
  • ‘Who’s that young man?’ asks Ariadne’s mother, having seen Jason sexing up her daughter. Oh, I don’t know, maybe just the guy who killed the minotaur, saved your city, and was honoured in a public ceremony literally seconds earlier AT WHICH YOU WERE PRESENT. 

Side note:
Why is ‘that’s none of your concern’ the go-to Ye Olde Subestitutione for ‘none of your business’? I was replaying Skyrim last week and it’s probably the single most repeated line of dialogue in the game after ‘FUS DO RA’. I tried googling it to find out if it’s used anywhere else and all I found was a fanfiction (possibly erotic; I stopped reading) involving the personifications of various Scandinavian countries in WWII experiencing teenage angst.
End of side note. 
It’s not just the dialogue that’s bad, though – the story is pretty terrible too. The writers seem to have taken the same approach to Greek mythology that Merlin took to Arthurian legend – creating a completely different world with nominal similarities to the source material, creating your own (stock) characters and choosing names apparently at random from the most familiar words on the relevant Wikipedia page. Quite a lot of foundation-building is done in this episode, most of it in the form of a single massive exposition dump from some character you just instantly know exists only to deliver massive exposition dumps. At least Game of Thrones had the decency to make its narrator-insert a prostitute, so if you were bored you could just get mesmerised by her bouncing nipples (that, at least, was my fiancée's reaction).

Briefly, Jason’s missing father was actually from Atlantis, which isn't so much a lost city as in a parallel universe (original), and for some reason was very important to everyone there, but that actually means that everyone wants to kill Jason (they set lions on him. And a two-headed dragon!) for some reason, and the minotaur to which the city is delivering its yearly tribute is actually just a man cursed by the gods for betraying Jason’s father (apparently bestiality isn’t suitable for children until they reach Twilight age), and then Jason teams up with Pythagoras and his drunk landlord Hercules to form a gang of monster-hunters for hire and oh God I just can’t take it anymore this is just ridiculous.
Another side note (I know that’s two in as many paragraphs but really this is more interesting than the actual program):
We’re told that the city has 20,000 inhabitants, and that the seven unlucky tributes are chosen from them by drawing stones (so far, so accurate). We’re shown three or four people taking stones, and it takes them each about 20 seconds (not counting Jason, who takes ages because he keeps flirting with the woman with the enormous eyebrows). That works out at 400,000 seconds for the lot, which is about four and a half days of constant drawing. Even if only a third of the population actually participate in the draw that’s an absurdly long time. Actually now I think about it there are lots of ways round that, so maybe that was a rather pointless digression.
End of side note.
As the episode went on the comparison to Merlin became stronger and stronger. Like Merlin, it’s obviously meant to be a slightly-campy slightly-amusing slightly-exciting children’s adventure series in a slightly-recognisable setting, but where it fails so catastrophically where Merlin mostly succeeded is in the language. When you have a historic-fantasy setting like this, how your characters speak is important. If it’s too archaic it can be irritating for the audience, but if it’s too modern it feels incongruous and silly. Merlin struck a good balance by shunning obvious modernisms such as ‘ok’ and ‘your mum’, but otherwise preventing the dialogue from drifting much further back than the 1940s, producing a kind of wholesome boys-own-adventure feel which suited the banter between the main characters and the occasional action scene. Every now and then it would drift into Ye Olde Serioussnesse, but that was usually reserved for big speeches or whatnot where it made sense that people would speak more formally. Here, though, we teeter between ‘what pray tell is this?’ and ‘well at least I’m not fat’ on an almost line-ly basis, and the constant gear change between idiocy and glib smugness is somehow worse than either on their own.

Of course, the other thing Merlin had going for it was genuinely likeable characters, who, while not perhaps paragons of rounded development, were at least recognisably human and had moments of sorrow and mirth and interest and were played by real people who could actually act and weren’t chosen simply because of the size of their man-breasts. Even the supremely unpleasant Arthur was better than Atlantis’ evil queen, who slaps her daughter silly with no provocation. I don’t think I can continue with a solid review, so here in brief are a few other things worth noting:

  • The costumes are as bad as the rest of the show; admittedly it’s hard to make chiton-and-trousers look good, even on someone who’s spent so much time developing their physique, but the nobles’ coloured robes look as though they’ve been bought from Smitthy’s. 
  • The CGI is pretty terrible, but that’s to be expected from the BBC and I don’t hold it against them. 
  • Jason is weirdly fast to accept his new life and lineage. Usually characters in his situation work the other way and refuse to believe that what they’re seeing, eating, stabbing and occasionally sleeping with is real long past the point where it stopped being convincing or not-irritating, but Jason is just a little too quick. I could comment on this representing his self-assurance and scientific rationalism complementing each other, resulting in a complete confidence in the evidence of his senses, but if this series has done anything clever it’s probably by accident. 

The worst thing is that it’s just not funny. When something tries to be serious and fails, it’s usually quite amusing, but when something tries to be funny and fails it’s just bad. And that’s what this is. It’s not so-bad-it’s-funny or so-bad-it’s-good, it’s just bad.

Atlantis airs weekly on BBC One at 8.25pm on Saturday, and is available on BBC iPlayer, though why you’d want to watch it is beyond me.

I suppose the one thing Atlantis has in its favour is that it is, technically, new IP, and the BBC pushing new programming out rather than just airing repeats of series 57 and 89 of Doctor Who and British Bake-Off respectively is something that should be celebrated. The problem is that rather than try something actually new or original they just decided to re-cast Merlin in a less-interesting setting with worse actors and a script pasted together by a committee of howler monkeys from shreds of Jason and the Argonauts fanfiction. The result is that there is insufficient novelty to cover its many failings – though, to be fair, it’s hard to think of anything that could really cover for failings on this monumental scale.

The other excuse is that it’s for children, but I don’t think that really counts either. Ok, so you can probably get away with lowering your standards a bit for the ankle-biters, but not this much. Maybe if you were programming exclusively for those still in the womb, but at that point I’d worry about it harming the child’s development.

No comments:

Post a Comment